It wasn’t exactly trench warfare, but neither did it resemble the Alamo.
The “Border Battle” — the resumption at Mariucci Arena of the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry — was a suspense-free affair Friday night. The Gophers put forward a steady, determined effort, totaling 50 shots on goal and getting their scoring from novel sources to pound out a 5-2 win over the Badgers.
The first three Gopher goals came from freshmen not named “Vanek,” and a fourth was off the stick of a defenseman best known for hard hits.
“Our big-time goalscorers came through tonight,” Gopher head coach Don Lucia quipped. “It was nice to see some other guys get involved.
“This is the time of year when your freshmen really aren’t freshmen any more,” he continued. “They’ve played 30 games, and they should play like veterans.”
Minnesota’s Andy Sertich — one of the aforementioned freshmen — had a goal and an assist. He noted, “Coach has said many times that everyone needs to step up if we want to make a run. … We’ve all come together now, playing as a unit.”
While Wisconsin (10-18-3, 4-14-3 WCHA) continued to struggle with its offense, Minnesota (16-7-7, 11-5-5) scored twice in each of the first and second periods to build an effectively-insurmountable lead.
“There were 12 minutes in the second period where we matched their heart,” said Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves. “The other 48, they beat us to loose pucks, their skaters outraced our forecheckers. For 12 minutes it was fun to watch this team.”
The Gophers used good puck movement to control the opening minutes, and rookie defenseman P.J. Atherton quickly put Minnesota ahead by picking up a loose puck after Wisconsin defender Brian Fahey held up Grant Potulny in the high slot. Atherton roofed a shot from 15 feet for his second goal of the season at 5:08.
Minnesota doubled its advantage at 13:47 of the first period. Sertich, going to the corner, saw Tyler Hirsch uncovered at the edge of the slot, and fed the sophomore for a nifty redirection that beat UW goaltender Bernd Bruckler to the far side.
The Gophers pummelled Bruckler in the first, putting 19 shots on the netminder from Graz, Austria — also the hometown of Minnesota’s Thomas Vanek.
Wisconsin started the second with a stronger effort, giving the hosts fits with an aggressive forecheck and bottling the Gophers up in their defensive zone.
A slash by UW’s Brent Gibson at 7:13 put Minnesota up a man again, but a minute later Vanek got caught with a skate in the crease to bring the puck outside the zone.
Vanek took issue with the call, and referee Don Adam — perhaps signaling his intent to maintain order in a rivalry game — took roughly one millisecond to slap the Gophers’ scoring leader with a 10-minute misconduct.
But Sertich and blueliner Matt DeMarchi undid the Badgers’ good work at 11:18. Gaining the offensive zone on the left side, DeMarchi went in deep with the puck before centering sharply to Sertich for a slapshot that dented twine on the glove side of Bruckler. Sertich’s third goal of the year gave Minnesota a comfortable 3-0 lead.
After Minnesota’s Troy Riddle and Potulny hit pipes in a two-minute span midway through the second, the Gophers’ comfort was disturbed by a pillow-soft Wisconsin goal.
Jake Heisler, spurned moments earlier by a good glove stop by Minnesota netminder Travis Weber (25 saves), released an ordinary shot from the right point that somehow eluded Weber’s glove, fluttering into the net to cut the Gopher lead to two at 15:58. The goal — the dictionary definition of “one you’d like back” — was Heisler’s first of the season.
Penalties on John Eichelberger and Jon Krall late in the period gave the Gophers extended time to work five-on-three, however, and Minnesota took advantage. Operating, as customary, from behind the net, Vanek hit an unmarked Potulny in the high slot, and the Gopher captain calmly fired the puck home to return the Gopher lead to 4-1.
A lower-tempo third did nothing to alter the outcome, though Bruckler stopped two point-blank scoring attempts and Wisconsin finally mustered some help on the power play.
On the man-advantage at 14:39, Tom Gilbert — the team’s second-leading scorer as a rookie defenseman — beat Weber with a slapshot that nicked the goaltender before crossing the goal line to make it 4-2 Minnesota.
The hard-shooting DeMarchi finished the scoring at 18:29 on the power play, blasting one home from the top of the right circle for his sixth goal and the final margin.
A bemused Eaves was left to discuss his team’s inability to match the Gophers’ effort level.
“The hard part of the game is not who we are naturally,” said Eaves. “We have kids who are nice young men, but to play hard for 60 minutes doesn’t come naturally for them.”
Despite making 45 saves, Eaves’ netminder offered a similar assessment.
“Coming off a home sweep [of Alaska-Anchorage], we’re all really excited to come into the game,” said Bruckler. “I think the coaching staff was surprised that we weren’t more ready to play.”
The Gophers, meanwhile, have seen their spirits lifted recently.
“Our confidence is higher,” said Hirsch. “We feel a little more secure in our roles.”
Minnesota will host Wisconsin again Saturday night to close out the weekend series.